A grunting finch? - How about a Lark Bunting!

Richard Bradus


Thanks to Josiah and Dominik, who both suggested Bobolink. Having only seen a few, it's possible that this was an unusual example, but I did not think of it during observation as it did not have the rich buffy tones typical of that species, nor the usually obvious buffy supercilium. It also was more heavily streaked, and the bill was more triangular and stout (finch-like, not meadowlark/blackbird-like).

So I went exploring references a bit more. While Bobolinks make a bunch of calls, they all tend to fit into what I'm familiar with from Blackbirds and such, including the harsh "chet", and none that I encountered was a deep (low pitched) or guttural as what I heard yesterday. Taking another dive into the guidebooks and online, the only bird that seems to match what I saw and heard is a female/immature Lark Bunting. Unfortunately, I did not look closely or get a good look at the wings (it wasn't on my radar as a possibility, obviously) so I can't say with confidence that it showed (or didn't show) the characteristic white edging of the greater coverts. But the sound is important here as well, and the beginning low notes of the Lark Bunting song (as on multiple online recordings) are the best match to the low "wonk" or "wank" that I heard. It did not make any buzz calls or burst into melody, unfortunately.

So, Lark Bunting. Understanding the rarity of such a sighting, that's my best determination for this unusual visitor. With the cloudy conditions overnight, it's possible that it may still be around. 

Good luck!

Richard Bradus
San Francisco

On Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 5:16:59 PM PDT, Richard Bradus via Groups.Io <grizzledjay@...> wrote:

Hi all

I spent a bit of time around noon enjoying this lovely day at the East Wash, where I saw multiple FOF for me (including Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush and Flicker) but was also completely stumped by a bird making a call like none other I've heard.

I first heard it deep in the fennel/reeds on the upper west slope of the wash along the paved path next to the golf course - a kind of deep guttural "wonk", single call, repeated at rather long intervals a couple of times. Eventually the bird popped up atop the dry stalks, seemingly foraging along with a flock of House Finches, where I saw it make that same deep call once again. While it perhaps could have been an odd female Purple Finch, my first thought was not of a finch but of an abnormally large juvenile/female (Indigo) Bunting, as it had a relatively pale streaked breast, brown head with a not very prominent superciliary line, and a paler throat with a somewhat distinct pale gray/tan band extending around the neck toward the back (but I never got a look at the back or the under tail). However, it had a stout beak, but not huge, and the overall coloration was not as bold (especially around the head) as I would expect for a female Black-headed Grosbeak. After about 30 seconds of a relatively good frontal look, it flew off upslope along with the House Finches and I did not hear or see it again.

I couldn't put the various features together into a cohesive whole in the field, and I can't find a good match in my guidebooks - it actually looks most like a cross between a female bunting and juvenile Spotted Towhee as seen in the illustrations for the third edition of the National Geographic guide (but not like those in Sibley). And, most importantly, that low grunt of a call, so unlike the melodious tones I expect from a finch or grosbeak - more fitting a corvid (raven especially).

So, I'm wondering if anyone has heard a call like that before (dang, sure wish I had thought to whip out my phone to try to get a recording; too late!), or would like to hazard a guess as to the ID. Is it something weird, or just a typical species that I'm blanking on because of its unusual call? Any thoughts welcome.

Richard Bradus
San Francisco